The accused gang member who allegedly shot and killed an innocent college student after he was cut loose from jail is a free man once again over what a Bronx judge called “problematic” testimony from detectives in his case.
Steven Mendez, 17, accused of killing Saikou Koma, 21, last fall, was freed Tuesday after the judge found prosecutors and detectives botched their case before the grand jury, court records obtained by The Post show.
In a scathing Monday ruling, Supreme Court Justice Naita Semaj ruled detectives gave “problematic” and “improper” testimony during grand jury proceedings that ultimately prejudiced Mendez and didn’t give him a fair shot.
“The errors here can hardly be called harmless,” Semaj concluded in her written ruling dismissing the murder indictment against Mendez.
“The Court finds that the Grand Jury Proceedings were impaired, and that the defendant was clearly prejudiced,” she wrote.
Semaj then released Mendez on his own recognizance — despite his past history of violent crimes and the murder case, which she is permitting prosecutors to re-try.
Former Manhattan prosecutor and high-profile criminal defense attorney Mark Bederow called it a “virtually unprecedented” move, describing the decision to free Mendez as “stunning.”
“The criminal procedure law specifically allows a court to continue to detain someone who’s in custody when an indictment is dismissed in these circumstances,” said Bederow.
The Bronx District Attorney’s Office has 45 days from the date of the ruling to re-present their case to a grand jury, which a spokesperson for the office confirmed it plans to do.
“Technicality?! That is crazy!” Koma’s mother Haja Kaira railed to The Post after learning why the judge threw the alleged killer’s case out.
“This just hurts us more.”
During the grand jury proceedings, two detectives who investigated the murder explained to jurors how they determined Mendez was the alleged triggerman.
One of the officers, identified in records only as Detective Garcia, told jurors Mendez was the killer because he was caught on surveillance footage before the shooting wearing Jordan 6 Infrared sneakers – the same shoes he had on when he was arrested, the records state.
Garcia also told jurors Mendez was the shooter because he was wearing distinctive Purple brand jeans that had white fabric attached to the back pocket on the night of the killing and those same pants were found at his home when cops searched it.
Video of Mendez allegedly wearing the sneakers, photos of the pants and snaps of what the teen was wearing on the day he was arrested were all presented to the grand jury.
The judge ruled that the jurors had the ability to make their own determinations based on the evidence — and that the detective shouldn’t have explicitly spelled it out for them.
The other officer, identified only as Detective Brugal, testified about surveillance footage that she said showed Mendez “reenacting [the] shooting” and “simulating” pointing a gun.
“In eliciting this testimony, the People invited the Detective to share her irrelevant opinion,” Semaj wrote. “This shooting was not captured on video, so any testimony that the Detective gave regarding who the shooters were was clearly based on her own opinion.”
The question of whether Mendez, or anyone else on the surveillance footage, was the shooter should have been solely up to the grand jury, the justice said, adding, “Detective Brugal’s opinion is irrelevant and inappropriate.”
“The video evidence speaks for itself,” Semaj said.
Bederow said prosecutors treated the cops like witnesses, even though the detectives didn’t actually see the shooting, and that their their line of questioning was “improper.”
“The Bronx DA screwed up,” he told The Post.
But the former prosecutor said he wasn’t sure if the “mistake” — which he chalked up to a “technicality” — was enough to dismiss the indictment since the judge didn’t spell out the rest of the evidence prosecutors had against Mendez, as is customary for these sorts of rulings.
“Whether it rises to the level that should’ve resulted in the dismissal of a murder indictment frankly is hard to determine,” Bederow said.
Mendez’s Legal Aid attorney Jamal Johnson said Semaj made the right ruling.
“In accordance with the law, the Judge found and agreed that the integrity of the grand jury was heavily compromised by the police witnesses’ improper statements,” Johnson said through a spokesperson.
“This misconduct is simply unacceptable, and if we turn a blind eye to this behavior, innocent people will suffer.”
On Oct. 24 last year, Mendez and a pack of other reputed gang members were allegedly seeking payback after one of their members suffered a beatdown when they came upon Koma on Ryer Avenue in Fordham Heights.
Mendez allegedly shot Koma in the head in what was likely a case of mistaken identity, police sources previously said.
Koma’s mother was distraught after Mendez was released and said the detectives’ testimony was “not an error” but “clear proof.”
“The detectives did [their] job! What else are they looking for?!” Kaira seethed.
“It don’t make no sense to me. What I see is nobody’s life is of value to her, this judge. My son is not doing anything bad in his life. He’s only a good boy. They kill him for no reason and she puts no value on his life. Everyone’s life has value. Everyone has family.”
Additional reporting by Kevin Sheehan and Priscilla DeGregory